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M iguel de Cervantes Saavedra
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Likeness of Miguel of Cervantes Saavedra

The one you see here, of aquiline face, chestnut-colored hair; clear, smooth forehead, cheerful eyes and curved, though well-formed, nose; silver beard which not even twenty years ago was still golden, a big moustache, a little mouth, teeth neither little nor big, because he has only six, in bad shape and even more badly positioned, since not one of them fits any of the others; his body between two extremes, neither large nor small, a bright complexion, rather light than dark; a little stoop-shouldered and not very fleet of foot: this is the face of the author of La Galatea and of Don Quijote de la Mancha, the face of the one who wrote Viaje del parnaso, in the style of César Caporal Perusino, and other works that are out there somewhere, maybe even without their owner's name. He is commonly known as Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

Likeness of Miguel of Cervantes Saavedra


Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares in 1547 and died in Madrid in 1616. His father Rodrigo de Cervantes was a doctor of few means. Nothing is known of his mother Leonor de Cortinas. It appears that Cervantes studied with the Jesuits in Córdoba or Seville and perhaps in Salamanca. It is fairly certain that he was a pupil of López de Hoyos in Madrid. In 1569 he went to Italy as part of Cardenal Acquaviva's retinue and after signing up as a soldier in 1570 fought in the battle of Lepanto aboard the galley Marquesa. For the rest of his life he would boast of the several wounds that he received in his hands and in his forehead. Subsequently, he fought in the Corfú, Navarino, and Tunis campaigns. On his way back to Spain in 1575, the galley El Sol was attacked by Turkish ships and Cervantes was taken captive to Algeria. During his five years of captivity he wrote the Epístola a Mateo Vázquez. Juan Gil obtained Cervantes's freedom in 1580 in exchange for 500 ducats. Once back in Spain, he became a tax collector for the Invincible Armada. He had one daughter, Isabel, from his liaison with Ana de Villafranca. He married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios in 1584. He was twice imprisoned for embezzlement and for not paying his debts. He went to jail in 1603 when the corpse of Gaspar de Ezpaleta was found on his doorstep, but he was released for lack of evidence. From 1613 one of his books will appear every year until the last one, Persiles, with its dedication in which he takes leave of his readers signed three days before his death, on April 23, 1616.

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Cervantes the poet

Cervantes is not considered a good poet. It is hard to evaluate his poetry, labeled mediocre because it is compared to his prose. Some of his poems are found in La Galatea. He also wrote Dos canciones a la armada invencible. His best work, however, is found in the sonnets, particularly Al túmulo del rey Felipe en Sevilla. Among his most important poems, Canto de Calíope, Epístola a Mateo Vázquez, and the Viaje del Parnaso stand out.

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Cervantes the playwright

Comparisons have also diminished the reputation of his plays, but two of them, Los tratos de Argel and La Numancia, made a big impact and were not surpassed until Lope appeared. Cervantes's later production consists of 16 dramatic works, among which eight full-length plays: El gallardo español, Los baños de Argel, La gran sultana doña Catalina de Oviedo, La casa de los celos, El laberinto del amor, the cloak and dagger play La entretenida, El rufián dichoso and Pedro de Urdemalas, a sensitive play about a pícaro who joins a group of gypsies for love of a girl. He also wrote eight short farces (entremeses) : El juez de los divorcios, El rufián viudo llamado Trampagos, La elección de los alcaldes de Daganzo, La guarda cuidadosa, El vizcaíno fingido, El retablo de las maravillas, La cueva de Salamanca, and El viejo celoso. These plays and entremeses made up Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses nuevos, nunca representados, which appeared in 1615. Cervantes's entremeses, whose dates and order of composition are not known, must not have been performed in their time. Faithful to the spirit of Lope de Rueda, Cervantes endowed them with novelistic elements such as simplified plot, the type of description normally associated with the novel, and character development. The dialogue is sensitive and agile.

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Cervantes the novelist

Cervantes's novels, listed chronologically, are La Galatea (1585); El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha I (1605); Novelas ejemplares (1613); Segunda parte del ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha (1615), and Los trabajos de Persiles y Segismunda, historia septentrional (1617). Los trabajos is the best evidence not only of the survival of Greek novelistic themes but also of the survival of forms and ideas of the Spanish novel of the second Renaissance. This work was published after the author's death.

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The Quijote

In 1605 Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra published the first part of his novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha. Dedicated to the Duke of Béjar, it was published in Juan de la Cuesta's printing shop under the supervision of Francisco de Robles. An unprecedented success, six editions came out in the first year and it was translated into English in 1612 and into French in 1614. Given to reading books of chivalry, the protagonist Alonso Quijano, influenced by the exploits of his heroes, loses his mind and decides to become a knight, go out in search of adventure and impose justice according to the code of the knights errant. Cervantes's work, a keen critique of the literature of his time, presented the clash between reality and the ideals which Don Quijote sought to revive, and at the same time originated the theme of the clairvoyance of insanity. In 1614 Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (possibly a pen name) published a Segundo tomo del Ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha in Tarragona while Cervantes was working on his own part two, which appeared in 1615. Cervantes's book was read as a parody of novels of chivalry until the Romantics revealed its true importance as a novel. Part one interpolates peripheral episodes into the main plot. This structural aspect was criticized in Cervantes's time and continues to be so in the present. This criticism had a big effect on the second part, where these stories no longer appear. Starting with the Retablo de maese Pedro, Cervantes demonstrates a mastery of theatrical illusion which, absent from part one, becomes another narrative function in part two.

The Quijote is an Aristotelian meditation on the nature of literature and the role of the writer in society. Cervantes makes a distinction between poetic truth and historical truth and attempts, through the use of parody, to set their boundaries. He shows how not distinguishing between the two leads to the moral degradation of his hero and, consequently, of his public.

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Works used by permission of the Centro de Estudios Cervantinos
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Last update: 5/13/97.

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